Widecombe History Group Talk on Archaeology at the DNPA

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Debbie started by confirming that her title is Head of Archaeology and Historic Buildings and showed a picture of her desk at Parke. Piles of paper (in the out tray of course) and no-one working!

She stated that the 1995 Environment Act re-defined the purpose of National Parks as the conservation and enhancement of the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the Park. After frenzied discussion of what the last is, it was put under Debbie’s wing, as the Historic and Cultural environment of the Park.

There is a wide variety of archaeological sites in the Park, with some 11,000 on the County sites and Monuments Register, which range from single items like Spinster’s Rock, a Neolithic tomb, to large field systems like Mountsland Common, which shows the skeleton of the modern landscape of fields, dispersed houses and lanes, which is so familiar today. In time, these range mainly from the Bronze Age, 3,500 or so years ago, to the 20th century. Some 10,000 hectares of field systems and 600 kilometres of reaves still survive over that period.

She showed slides of medieval sites and settlement patterns, with extensive landscapes of field systems, some showing ridge and furrow from centuries ago, industrial features such as tin mills and very extensive tin workings, and farming buildings and artifacts.

She divided the features into relic (items no longer in use and left behind) and dynamic (still in use). Some 3500 years old are still in use, such as field boundaries based on Bronze Age reaves, and she showed the field pattern at Michelcombe, similar to the one at Dunstone, medieval in origin but still being farmed.

There are 2800 Listed Buildings in the Park ranging from a 20th century telephone box to Castle Drogo, and dating back to Higher Uppacott from the 14th century and the many fine longhouses on the moor, and the variety of town houses in the moorland towns.

There are also many non-listed historic farm buildings and historic settlements of which 21 are Conservation Areas, which are all part of the Cultural Heritage.

Cultural Heritage also includes the "soft" variety, customs and traditions like Widecombe Fair and picking whorts, and skills like thatching and stone walling. These all have a distinctive local nature and add to the visual character of the area.

The artistic and literary response to the area adds to the record of its culture.

In the late 1980’s the Edwards Report, which led up to the 1995 Act, stated that "The Park Authorities must take an active interest in all of the environmental attributes and cultural traditions which contribute to the high quality of their areas and should seek to ensure their proper protection and management." This defines the duty of the Park, and Debbie’s part in it.

The National Park is the Planning Authority for Dartmoor, and most applications go to Debbie for comment and advice. Typical of the items picked up she showed a slide of an excavation for a house extension on which she requested an archaeological investigation of the area to be covered, and the foundations of an earlier building were turned up.

Vetting of the undergrounding of cables, which disturbs the buried archaeology, allows supervision, and consultation with forestry operations protects the remains within woodland. Plans for leisure activities are checked and letterbox sites, routes etc. are adjusted to avoid sensitive areas.

The National Park do not always get it right themselves, she showed a picture of Combestone Tor carpark which they built right across a Bronze Age reave, but that was before they had an archaeologist!

Agricultural and forestry activities also affect the old features, and advice is given on restoration and protection of old features, such as cornditches, where these still provide for modern needs. Archaeological sites in the woodland are cleared, and the remains sit in their own little glades. This protection also assists preservation of remains in ESAs and on the commons.

The Park is trying to build up a base of knowledge and understanding of the whole range of features here, and to that end arranges surveys of remains in conjunction with English Heritage. As an example, she showed a plan of Hutholes produced for the 1994 Year of Celebration of Dartmoor Archaeology and referred to one of Headland Warren just completed showing a vast amount of activity just in the medieval items.

Surveying now is concentrating on farmsteads, she showed a slide of Bullaton, to build up a knowledge of the overall content of the Park of the differing forms of farm buildings, and on settlements and their growth (she threatened us with a visit to Widecombe soon) to assist in planning of future developments.

Returning to Hutholes, she showed a picture of the 1960’s excavation, possibly including Mrs. Minter, and for comparison one of the 1994 excavation. She explained that the marks thought by Mrs. Minter to be the tops of post holes from earlier buildings now appear to be natural, roots and animal burrows, and that the shippon floor was below them with no signs of building below that. This suggests that the stone buildings were the first on the site, dating from around 1250, rather than that occupation had been from around 850 as had been thought by Mrs. Minter.

She reported on two investigations coming this year. The first, a continuing excavation of a hut circle at Kestor to assess the damage done to archaeology by bracken which is turning out to be vast. Incidentally this dig found a piece of Roman pottery, not expected on Dartmoor. The other, an assessment of the field system at Shoveldown, is to reconsider the findings of Andrew Fleming on Holne Moor.

The Park produces a range of leaflets and books, either for special groups such as the army or farmers, or for sale to the general public. These may be general, or specific to one topic such as a booklet on Hound Tor Village or laminated cards about artifacts. CD’s now carry the recordings from the Oral History Project.

Hound Tor Village is in the care of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, that care has been delegated to the Park, and this is the first such giving up of responsibility that English Heritage have agreed to. There is a lot of visitor pressure and walls get rebuilt out of all recognition. The Park has now started correcting them from Mrs. Minter’s photographs, gluing the stones in place with epoxy resin, and embedding coins.

Cists look ideal places for a nice safe barbeque, but the heat of a fire destroys the surface of the stone, and then the granite erodes away very quickly. The Park is filling them with soil for protection. Even a disposable BBQ laid on a builder will damage it or on grass will kill that. However, the quick flash of heat from swaling does no harm, though the sustained fire of a "Trendlebere" will do much archaeological damage as well as that to wildlife and vegetation.

The park undertakes erosion repair such as heavily worn footpaths or animal trampling around upright stones. Vegetation clearance is also necessary as was shown at Challacombe where, while plans were being drawn up, the 1990 gales brought down trees and with them the remains of the medieval village there, which comprised 12 longhouse. The trees were cleared and the stones numbered and rebuilt stone by stone. There is now a comprehensive management agreement there, the area is not only an archaeological site with farming, lynchets and tinworking, but is also a wildlife corridor from the valley bottom, to the heather above, and Debbie looks after the whole agreement.

She also described the work that had been done at Bullaton, the damage there was due to the ravages of time, the rescue and repair of the buildings was arranged, and a management agreement has been drawn up. This works well, the Park repaired and maintains the buildings and the farmer allows some public access.

Theft is a problem, artifacts on the open moor cannot be guarded, but a marking system with special "dots" is being introduced so that proof of origin can be established. The Park may be proposing to extend this so that other owner’s relevant items can be included.

Grants can assist improvement schemes, such as Hannaford Lily Pond which is a decayed old Victorian lily pond which has been cleaned out and replanted, and can help with repairs to Listed and Historic Buildings. Town enhancement schemes can be piloted, Buckfastleigh is a good example of this, and it is hoped that a better atmosphere will encourage regeneration.

The Park purchased Higher Uppacott in 1979, largely due to Freda’s influence, as it is an outstanding example of an early longhouse, probably the oldest occupied one on Dartmoor, with its shippon unaltered and smoke-blackened thatch and timbers (a mine of preserved weeds and insects) from its days as an open hall building. In 2001 the other half, a 17/18th century wing which had been occupied separately from the 19th century, was purchased and the Park can now show the development of the building over about 650 years. Past occupants and visitors, Rose Partridge and Edith Helley of the Warren family, have been contacted to recollect their memories of life there.

This leads into the Oral History Project where long term residents are being interviewed and a recording made of their experiences before it is forgotten. The voices of Rose and Edith once again can be heard in the house of their youth.

Not a bad day’s work, then, Debbie!

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The information on this page was last modified on March 18 2013 12:55:03.

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